The atmosphere created in Serbian media about the announced UN resolution on the Srebrenica genocide, could be characterized as just another attempt by Serbian political and media elites to diminish the responsibility of Serbia for its support for the mass killings of Muslims in Srebrenica, in July 1995. Serbian Foreign Affairs Minister Ivica Dacic, who would have to speak with a great deal of shame about the genocide against Bosniaks, tackled the job of counting how many times the word “genocide” appeared in the text of the resolution proposed by the Great Britain.
So far, the content of the resolution remains unknown to the general public, but has been provided to Serbian political leaders to give their opinion. Minister Dacic, Prime Minister Vucic and other nationalists welcomed the gesture – itself a sign of good diplomatic manners – with hostility. What bothers them the most? The number of times the resolution qualifies the crime in Srebrenica as a genocide, which they still refuse to admit. Is that qualification a novelty? Not really, as the Srebrenica genocide has already been proven in numerous judgments before international courts, while no one doubts the genocidal intentions and actions of the Army of the Republic of Srpska, which had the political, financial and logistical support of Serbia for its ethnic cleansing campaigns in Bosnia, which has also been repeatedly proven before domestic and international courts.
Serbian officials and their counterparts in the media were also appalled by the possibility that Srebrenica, as the only genocide in Europe since World War II, will be taught in schools as such. This upsets them more than anything, because they don’t know how to explain to the new generation of Serbian nationalists, raised in the last 20 years, that so many innocent people were killed in a single week in their name, for their imaginary state. To use a term Djindjic coined when speaking about Kosovo, how to break this bone in our brain? How could recognition of our involvement in the genocide in Srebrenica possibly fit into a public discourse that has, for two decades now, treated this crime with silence at best, and, at worst, denial?
Moreover, this issue bothers our political elite because it creates the possibility of finding out about other mass crimes conducted by the Serbian state in the wars of the nineties, the horrors committed by our army and police forces, especially in Kosovo. This is why it is no wonder that the anniversary of the Kumanovo agreement this year passed without a single comment in the Serbian media. As a reminder, June 9th marked the 16th anniversary of Milosevic’s capitulation after decades of torture inflicted on the Kosovo Albanians, that finally stopped after the NATO bombing of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, in 1999. Serbian media didn’t even mention the anniversary of Milosevic’s defeat, or the causes and consequences of his nationalist policies, which Dacic and Vucic also fiercely represented.
As far as possibility of his visit to Srebrenica in July, some authors supported Prime Minister Vucic’s intention to go there and pay his respect to the victims. The daily Politika, however, asked in a recent article whether every single political leader of Serbia would have to go to Srebrenica in order to repent in the name of Serbia? In other words, what do those dead want from us all the time, why don’t they leave us alone? To answer the question posed in Politika – yes, every official representing Serbia has to go to Srebrenica and pay homage to the victims. Yes, Serbian textbooks must state that Serbia was responsible for the genocide in Srebrenica and many other mass atrocities in the former Yugoslavia. And no, the dead will never leave us alone; they never do.
That’s just how it is when it comes to genocide and the guilty conscience of an entire society, which must constantly be reminded of the consequences of its political choices while our political elite, especially those that were the drivers of the war and genocidal policies, must never be left alone in this regard. All these unpleasant things that we have to do in relation to the crimes committed on our behalf are too low a price. As was our life in Serbia during the nineties, which was marked by poverty, deterioration, inflation and general misery – this was an incomparably small punishment compared to the value of even one innocent life lost in the region during the wars that we set off.
Genocide is not simply a word; behind this term lays a description of the most horrendous crimes that can be committed. Behind that single word are hundreds of thousands of wounded people, indirect genocide victims, because the victims are never only those who are dead. Therefore, it is inappropriate and inhumane to count how many times the word appears in any resolution and to seek compromises on that level, because violence, as well as reconciliation, begins in language. Without a clear change in the language we use, there will be no shifts in our consciousness, nor changes in the discourse of denial and negation that has ruled Serbia for the last 20 years.
Josip Juratovic, a deputy of the SPD in the German Bundestag, recently said that Vucic should go to Srebrenica and so become the new Willy Brandt. We’ve heard that before, when the former president of Serbia, Boris Tadic, went to Srebrenica in 2005. Even those who knew well the history of reconciliation after World War II, mistakenly called him the new Willy Brandt only because he went to Srebrenica. Prime Minister Vucic will never be Willy Brandt, even if he kneels before the mothers of Srebrenica and the remains of their families. You can’t simply wake up one day as Willy Brandt, it doesn’t work that way, as kneeling before the victims has to be preceded by a long process of social change at home.
Prime Minister Vucic and his predecessors haven’t even started this lengthy process, not to mention that their recent political past blocked it for decades. Brandt went to the Warsaw ghetto 30 years after its establishment, while at home neither he nor his predecessors hesitated to use “heavy” words when describing Nazi crimes. They also created a social environment in which it was possible to try those responsible for the crimes before the courts, to revise the textbooks, educate and sensitize the public opinion using various methods and by doing all that – change the consciousness of German citizens. The bone in their brain was much stronger than ours, but it was broken, nevertheless. In this sense, one has to ask – what exactly are Serbian society and its political elite willing to do?
Since Milosevic’s overthrow in 2000, it was clear that all our intentions of joining the European Union, returning to the Western world and implementing internal reforms would not yield positive results without facing our wartime past at home. Without starting this lengthy and prickly process, other people’s bones will continue to block our brain and will not give us a chance to make a single step forward.
This problem needs to be addressed in our society as soon as possible; every aggressor state has had to do that, and that fate will not bypass Serbia and its society, no matter how much our political and media elite resisted it.
Many examples teach us about the consequences of the choices a country can make in relation to its criminal past. Let us briefly mention only two opposite examples: Today, Germany is the most powerful EU country, and commonly referred to as the most advanced in Europe. The road to that position was, among other things, marked by decades of continuous efforts to speak openly about the crimes committed in WWII without taboos, but with a sense of shame and respect towards the victims. On the other hand, there is Turkey, which even after 100 years does not admit the Armenian genocide. During this century of denial, Turkish society produced a single-digit number of master’s and doctoral theses on the Armenian genocide, many of them actually denying it. Turkey’s political elite maintains the authoritarian governance model, while standing at the doorstep of the EU as a perennial candidate for membership for almost two decades.
If Serbian political leaders truly want to secure Serbia’s membership in the European Union, conduct the modernization of our society and reform our government – which are all key points in Prime Minister Vucic’s policies – we have to be the first country that will loudly support the UN resolution on the genocide in Srebrenica, and introduce July 11th in Serbia as a Remembrance Day for victims of the Srebrenica genocide, as it is in other EU countries. However, this would be only the beginning of a long emancipation process for the Serbian elite, as well as the society as a whole, and would add up to breaking those bones in our brains that prevent us from acknowledging the evil that our country has done on our behalf. Without that, a truly democratic Serbia will remain only an unsuccessful attempt.
Translated by Matja Stojanovic